This post is a consolidation of an essay written by Nathan Smolin, a PhD Student in Classics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, originally published in three parts (which can be found here, here, and here). In order to make this long, but incredibly insightful, work more easily navigable and readable, I’ve republished it here. I hope it may benefit you, dear reader.
Among the supposed “great dates” of history, one stands out strongly to those interested in the history of Christianity; the Great Schism between East and West, centered squarely on our charts in 1054 AD. If you have ever come across references to this Schism in popular works, the press, or even in many textbooks, your idea of it probably bears some resemblance to this: before 1054, the Christian Church was completely united, with no divisions. Then, in or around 1054, a conflict arose between Western and Eastern Christians over the phrase filioque, which the Pope had added to the Nicene Creed. As a result, the Pope and Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other, and the united Church of the first millennium was split into two bodies, the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. This story, tragic as it may be, holds little interest for most American Christians, who are generally more interested in the Protestant Reformation of five hundred years later than in what seems to be an opaque squabble over theological language.
Yet for many Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, this is, to say the least, a much bigger deal. The question of what happened, who was in the right, and who was at fault a thousand years ago is thought by many to be a matter of great importance, with powerful implications for their own faith and self-understanding. Thus, those who, like me, are driven by curiosity to learn more about the Great Schism enter an entirely different phase of understanding, one defined by a thousand years of polemics and myth-making. The accounts to be found in this world are, of course, far more detailed than the popular picture given above; yet even a cursory glance will show how far they diverge from each other, not only in terms of interpretation, but even in terms of the events themselves. What they all share in common is this: by the end of the first millennium, East and West had already diverged significantly in both culture and theology. Then, in 1054 AD, Pope Leo IX sent a delegation (led by one Cardinal Humbert) to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople in order to negotiate with the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, who had expressed disagreement with some Western practices. The two parties quarreled, and in the end, Humbert excommunicated Cerularius, and Cerularius excommunicated Humbert and his delegation. This led to a worsening of relations between East and West and a widening of the rift between them; however, it did not lead to a complete separation between the two sides, and it would take later events like the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 and the Fall of Constantinople in the 15th century to bring the two parties to their current state. Yet besides this basic agreement, the accounts differ massively according to the theological opinions of those writing them. Frequently, the interaction of these few individuals is made a kind of founding myth for the Schism, a perfect epitome of hundreds of years of historical movement, a perfect embodiment of the two sides and their characteristics. Humbert is the West, Cerularius the East. Their actions and character, however they are portrayed, are the actions and character of their respective “side” and their respective society, not only then, but for hundreds of years before and the millennium since. This is a very troublesome way to do history, and it has led to massively different accounts of the causes, characteristics, and events of this incident.
First of all, it is necessary to do away with a few general myths about the Schism. Most notably, it is not true to say, as is often done, that the Great Schism was the first schism to take place in the Church, or that it took place between the entire East and the entire West. As a matter of fact, in 1054, both Constantinople and Rome were already estranged from many Church bodies, most of whom were geographically and culturally far more “Eastern” than Byzantium. This included the Armenian Church of the Middle East, the Assyrian Church of the former Persian Empire, the Miaphysites of Egypt and Syria, and the distant churches of India and Ethiopia. These other schisms took place essentially along ethnic lines, for a variety of reasons cultural, political, theological, and geographical, and all hundreds of years before 1054. Thus, the Great Schism as we understand it is not really the division of the one, united Church into East and West, but rather the division of the Church originating in the bounds of the former Roman Empire into two bodies, one geographically more eastern than the other—or, put most simply, the division of Rome and Constantinople, and their associated churches. At the same time, this division was not preceded, as we might hope, by a thousand years of uninterrupted peace and unity; on the contrary, the first millennium was marked by a number of schisms and controversies between Rome and Constantinople. It is estimated that of the roughly five hundred years between the fourth century—when the city of Constantinople was founded—and the ninth century, a total of about two hundred years passed with the two cities in a state of schism. The ninth century itself saw the Photian Schism, in which the issue of the filioque became prominent for the first time. Though all these breaches were eventually healed, they could not fail to leave their mark on both sides.